Author: Stavro Skendi
Few countries have experienced such unusual confessional changes as Albania.
After the religious schism of 1054, she was split into a Catholic north and an Orthodox south. Westerners from across the Adriatic invaded Albania and attacked the Byzantine Empire. The thema of Durrës (Dyrrhachium) and its Metropolis became the most active theatre of contest between the two faiths. Whenever the Western armies were successful, the border line of the Eastern church receded: whenever Byzantium was victorious, its frontiers expanded. Church power followed the vicissitudes of the political power which supported it.
Caught between the East-West struggle, the local lords and bishops in Albania tried to adapt themselves to the changing situations. They wavered between Eastern Othodoxy and Roman Catholicism, according to their momentary interest. These oscillations, however, and the mixed populations of cities, such as Durrës, prevented the Orthodox-Catholic conflict from taking a violent form on Albanian territory.
With the coming of the Ottomans a third religion was introduced into Albania: Islamism. The Turks invaded Albania for the first time in 1385. Turkey were invited by an Albanian feudal lord of the central part, Charles Thopia, who, distrusting Venice and fearing the domination of a ruling house in the north, the Balshas, asked for Turkish support. Balsha II and many other Albanian lords formed a coalition in order to oppose the enemy, but their resistance was broken near the Vijosë River. Albania was invaded again in 1394-1396 by Sultan Beyazid I and a large part of the country was occupied by the Ottomans. But after Beyazid’s departure the local lords revolted and much of the lost territory was regained. A great invasion of the Turkish army took place in 1423 under Sultan Murad II (1421-1451) reaching as far as the Adriatic.
At the outset the Ottomans do not seem to have employed force for the propagation of Islam. They allowed the Albanian lords to maintain their positions on condition that they pay the harac (tribute), send their sons as hostages to the Sultan’s court, and furnish auxiliary troops. In the records of the timars (Ottoman military fiefs) in southern and central Albania for the years 1431-1432, only 30% of the timars were held by Turks from Asia Minor whom the sultans had rewarded with lands in Albania, the rest were held by Albanian lords.
It was not obligatory for an Christian Albanian lord to become a Mohammedan in order to preserve his possessions or part of them as timars, although no doubt he would be more favored by the Ottoman administration if he were converted to Islam. In the record book just mentioned, a Christian lord named Pavlo Kurtik appears as a holder of a great timar south of Tiranë, while well-known Albanian Christian lords like Yuvan (John, Skenderbeg’s father), Balsha, Araniti, Zenevisi, and Dimitri Jonima are all in control of other lands. There were timars held by Christians even during the reign of Mehmed II. Title to timars could also pass from a Christian to a Moslem or visa versa. We meet sipahi (holders of timars) brothers of whom one is a Christian and the other a Moslem.
Apparently local conditions influenced the Turks to pursue a conciliatory policy toward Albania before Skenderbeg’s time. The inhabitants were warlike people inclined to rebellion and their country was well-protected by mountains. Across the Adriatic was the Catholic West, and Venice, a potential enemy, was in possession of an important part of the Albanian coast. The Albanian local lords were small and more or less independent and it was easier for the Ottoman state to come to terms, with each one separately, with as good an offer as the timar. It was not even very difficult for them to become Moslems. They led in pre-Turkish Albania an amphibious life between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. A military state like the Ottoman Empire offered a wide field of opportunities for their warlike qualities. The interest of the Ottoman government in Albania seems then to have been primarily in recruiting support, irrespective of religion,
But in 1443 one of the sons of an Albanian lord who had been reared as a Moslem in the Sultan’s palace returned to Albania and raised the banner of revolt in the center of his father’s domains, the town of Kruja. It was Gjergj Kastrioti, surnamed Skenderbeg, the national hero of the Albanians. He immediately returned to the faith of his grandfathers. He declared in reality a Holy War from which there was no retreat; he linked his interests with the Christian West and burned his bridges behind him.
PP 151-152, “Balkan Cultural Studies” by Stavro Skendi, East European Monographs, Columbia University Press, 1980